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Old and Bent

August 27, 2011
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I’m quite interested in transport, generally speaking. Not in a town and country planning, clipboard toting geeky sort of way, more in a kind of excited young lad who grew up in the sixties way. I like airports and stations, like the buzz, enjoy travel and am not averse to visiting the odd transport museum.

So over the past 40 years or so, Edinburgh has been an interesting place to live.

When I returned to my hometown in 1970, large areas of the Southside had been laid waste. The Buchanan Report had suggested that Edinburgh should take the Glasgow route to better infrastructure and build motorways through the centre of the city. Large parts of town had been compulsorily purchased and demolished in preparation for these new freeways on stilts. The Report envisaged a 6 lane motorway through the Meadows which would swing down the Pleasance and cut through Calton Hill.

Luckily, nobody could agree on the development, a not uncommon story in the Capital, and it eventually became clear that the plan was madness.

The focus then turned to railways and light transit systems. Many believed, and still do, that an upgrade to the south suburban railway line – which carried city centre workers home and back at lunchtime till the late fifties – equivalent work on Waverley station, and some additional stations in various suburbs, would ease road congestion at a reasonable cost, in cash and environment.

Once again, indecision, lack of political will, and the eventual confusion caused by rail privatisation meant that no decisions were taken, and the streets filled up, and the congestion grew, and the parking became more and more impossible.

To be fair, planning roads and transport in a confined, small and heritage laden city like Edinburgh is not easy, but you would have hoped that, realising that, the city fathers would have put more effort into an integrated plan. Even the various decisions to grow the airport have been fraught with difficulty, and when you look at the situation in Manchester, you do wonder whether Edinburgh missed a trick in not retaining ownership of Turnhouse. (From Wikipedia: Manchester Airports Group is wholly owned by the ten local authorities of Greater Manchester, with a majority share (55%) owned by Manchester City Council; the other nine local authorities own 5% each. In addition to Manchester Airport, it owns and operates Bournemouth Airport, East Midlands Airport and Humberside Airport. The Group handles over 29 million combined passengers a year from its four airports and generates approximately £3.2 billion for the economy of the United Kingdom, whilst supporting, directly and indirectly, over 130,000 jobs.)

So, when trams were mooted, I was in favour – for all sorts of reasons.

What has transpired has been a totally botched, misguided and incompetent attempt to manage and complete a project. It passes all understanding that, with previous experiences to be culled from Manchester, Nottingham, Dublin, Newcastle and other cities, Edinburgh could get it so wrong. Apart from the waste of money, this also led to a general negativity towards the trams – not related to whether or not they would be good for the city, but as a reaction to the mismanagement and poor communication strategy.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the latest votes on the trams – a decision to limit the project to a useless, loss making route. Edinburgh Council, and this isn’t related at all to party politics, has made a career of dither, lack of vision and small mindedness. The concept of vision seems to be totally absent from our City Chambers, where small town bickering and one upmanship seems to reign supreme.

If we take a casual look along the M8 towards Glasgow, we can comment on how they have recovered from, or at least made the best of, the disaster of the town centre motorways. The Concert Hall, the SECC and the Armadillo, Pacific Quay, the new Transport Museum, the Scotstoun Sports complex, and having made superb use of the Kelvin Hall indoor sports arena, they replace it as part of the Commonwealth Games project.

And in Edinburgh? We build a world class athletics stadium in 1970, and, in less than 20 years, neglect it to the extent that it can no longer be used for even national events. We take no notice of the thousands who use it to take part in sport and only show interest when we think we can sell it for housing. This daft idea spawns more half baked notions about cut price stadiums…and eventually peters out to nothing. Our conference centre has to add bits on because it wasn’t built fit for purpose, there is no new built major auditorium, and there hasn’t been since the 1930’s, and our TV studios are reduced to a broom cupboard. Attempts to construct a film studio facility, which should be a cinch given how film makers love to use Edinburgh for location shooting, never get off the ground, as the councillors can’t agree whether Sean Connery or David Murray is their favourite millionaire.

Civically, we’ve built a financial sector on Lothian Rd and dotted some flats around the docks at Leith and the Granton waterfront – though we do talk incessantly of ‘redeveloping the waterfront from Cramond to Portobello’ – I would think, in the old days, the case room at the Evening News had that headline permanently set up. The long wait for an Opera House (not a big ask for a European Capital, you would think) was rewarded with another office block for lawyers and a rebuild of the Traverse Theatre.

All of this in a city which professes to be growing as Glasgow declines and, before the stuff hit the fan, made claims to be a major European Finance hub. Or maybe that last word should have read ‘hubris’.

But, to jump off my soapbox and on to a stationary tram, the politically motivated decision to vote for the worst option, the Haymarket route, can only be filed under short sightedness or vindictiveness. There is no other explanation. Rightly or wrongly, the decision was that Edinburgh should have trams. Once the decision is made, wouldn’t you think the Council would want the best scheme possible? Do they not know that people are watching them? Have they no concept of how ridiculous they seem?

Certainly, the mismanagement of the project is hideous, but, at the moment, the councillors’ behaviour is akin to a chef who had wanted to cook beef, but been told to cook pork, running out of the kitchen with a half cooked joint and shouting: ‘It’s crap meat. Just give them potatoes and peas!” The customers want and deserve better.

Of course, central government can serve us just as badly. Here’s an interesting collision of evidence. If you go out and about regularly in Edinburgh, you will have recognised that, in the last five years or so, it’s almost impossible to make any journey without hearing the blaring sirens of ambulances and paramedic 4x4s rushing through the city. This is not because we are all getting more ill, despite some of the headline health figures. It’s because there is increased traffic congestion and the city infirmary, formerly five minutes from Princes Street in the centre of Edinburgh is now as far away as you can get on the southern side of the capital without actually being in Dalkeith. The money received for the sale of such a glamorous site overlooking the Meadows was too much to ignore and much more evident than the plight of a seriously ill patient’s extra mileage to A&E. We were told the selling price, a surprisingly reasonable £30 million, would finance our new, PFI funded, state of the art hospital. In the end the new ERI was built for more than £70 million over budget – though there may well have been some saving in not equipping it with air conditioning. Unfortunately, overall, £1.5 billion will be paid for the £228 million Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. These figures make the current complaints of Edinburgh councillors a little petty.

The conclusion to all of this seems to be that neither the Capital nor Westminster can be trusted when making important plans that impact on Edinburgh’s citizens. Labour had the trams idea, just like PFI, but now they say it costs too much (Scottish Parly anyone?), the LibDems? Aye well! And the SNP? Well there’s the rub, because other than not wanting to upset the folk in Glasgow, I’m not sure why the SNP in the Parliament are so set against the project. The Parliament has brought new purpose and focus to the Capital and you would think they would want to build on that. there is a strong claim that the capital city sets the tone for a nation. Even economically it is certainly true that the vast majority of tourists who come to Scotland use Edinburgh as their gateway and they need to have a good first impression. The view fo the castle is a great backdrop to Princes Street, despite the depleted nature of the shopping experience, but it’s not much of a vista when it’s obscured by nose to tail double decker buses.

The Scots government need to take over responsibility for getting a proper tram system up and running in Edinburgh as soon as possible. We also need to look at how we do transport in Scotland. If the country is small enough for one police force then it is surely ripe for a national integrated transport authority – so that our cities and rural areas get the infrastructure they need, without the ineffectual meddling of local politicians. Local democracy is an aspiration, but it’s a dead horse I’m not prepared to continue flogging, based on the evidence of the past thirty years or so. If councils can’t do civic pride – whether it’s through lack of vision or malpractice, then let’s replace it with national pride.

In a drawer, I have an old penny. It is bent almost in two because it was placed under the wheels of the last tram to run in Edinburgh. The occasion is one of my first memories, up and out with my parents late at night, the crowds, the fuss, the brightly floodlit white tram passing by the end of Waverley Bridge. I wish I could be confident that at sometime in the future a middle aged man could look at a memento of the first new tram to run in the 21st century, with similar affection.

Of course, if we do get some sort of new tram system, there will be no bent pennies as souvenirs. There will be carefully packaged pieces of expensive official merchandise. Because, otherwise, how on earth will they make money out of the opening – and that, of course, is the whole point.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. gerry permalink
    August 27, 2011 7:54 pm

    it is indeed a sorry tale. will the royal really cost 1.5bn? that is staggering! who did we all give our 1.2bn freeby to? the holyrood parliament looks like a steal!

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